Creepy Christian Cumberland Caverns

My husband, son, and I went with some fabulous friends to Cumberland Caverns yesterday, "Tennessee's largest cavern" and a "U.S. National Landmark" in glorious McMinnville, Tennessee. The cave was incredibly cool, featuring amazing formations, evidence of an 1812 saltpeter mine, and cold clear pools with nothing but blind crawfish and the bacteria they subsist on living in them. Turning out the electric lights they've installed throughout makes you aware of just how big, empty, and dark caves can be, just how small is your own existence alongside the grandeur and intricate exquisiteness of Nature.

But the privately-owned Cumberland Caverns do not trust that you'll get this message on your own. Instead, tacky and clearly psychotic owner (whose name I cannot find published anywhere online but will fill in when I get a moment) decided to exploit and dump his religious beliefs on this grandeur via an underground "ballroom," complete with a 3/4 ton crystal chandelier he bought and stuck into the ceiling of a huge open chamber, and a wacky "sound and light show" called "God of the Mountain" that is suddenly announced when you're deep in the cave and happens after you've climbed 96 steps to the top of the mountain then a bunch down into the available seating. It is perhaps excess to analyze the details of this "original underground pageant of light and sound"; suffice it to say you hear some old recording of a black gospel retelling of the opening of the book of Genesis, then the wacky owner drops Jesus in as though he came right after Adam, and everything is piped through accompanied by lightbulbs of various colors at various points on the cave walls and ceiling areas to indicate God (a blue-green light patch on the righthand wall), the sun (cool white light overhead and before you), the "tiny stars" (blob of white light on right upper wall), Jesus (white light on column of rock), and humankind (white light on more columns of rock). Humankind's ambition is portrayed by red light on a little recessed area of rock as a special treat.

Now our guide did point out that we did not have to climb the steps and go down into the theater area if we did not want to. Instead, we could wait 25 MINUTES on a small bench in the middle of the cavern and he'd leave some lights on. But it did seem like a bait and switch to me. Cumberland Caverns is heavily advertised as a National Landmark, but it is not, I learned after asking, a part of the National Park Service. This natural treasure is owned by one guy, and that means he can do whatever he wants with his caverns, whether that is simulating an "Old Moonshine Still," adding props to help you recall the 1812 saltpeter mining operation in all its glory, afixing a huge and absurdly tacky 1950s chandelier into the ceiling (then adding red, white, and blue lightbulbs into it and doing a little "light show" to "The Blue Danube"), or offering a cartoonishly over-the-top Christian "pagaent of light and sound" once they've got you where they want you.

Our guide did also note there had been some legal trouble about this little evangelical show, but it's obvious that the bench placed for those who want to wait behind and the little disclaimer of a short "Christian light show" has been enough to quiet the ACLU or whoever was taking them on. I was pretty angry that we did not get notification of this religious attack BEFORE we paid our $12 per adult and $6 per child to go on our tour, but, to be fair, after reviewing the brochure you could get before walking in the door to the gift shop (complete with rebel flag mugs), I do see that it clearly announces that "'God of the Mountain,' an original underground pageant of light and sound is shown on every tour."

So, they've covered their asses well enough, and the show was so goofy as to be easier to read as satire than sincere, but I cannot help but share my husband's plaintive query: "Are there no secular spaces left in this country?"


Rick said...

Hello, Dr. Helford! Wasn't it a lovely trip through Cumberland Caverns? Excepting, of course, the light show fiasco!

For my complete comments on this post, please see the post on my blog.

Rick said...

Ooops... misspelled the link! My blog post is here.

Larry E. Matthews said...

Having been associated with Cumberland Caverns for nearly 45 years, it is interesting to hear you refer to the "owner" of Cumberland Caverns as psychotic. Actually, Cumberland Caverns is owned by the descendents of the original owner from whom it was leased in 1955. So I guess all his descendants are psychotic?

The current manager of the cave, if that is you you are referring to, is Roy Davis, one of the nicest people you would ever hope to meet. And yes, he is a very religious person. But, I guess you are too, since under "About Me" you identify yourself as Jewish.

And yes, Cumberland Caverns is, indeed a National Landmark and, like many National Landmarks, it is private property. The designation National Landmark in no way implies that the property is part of the National Park system.

The saltpeter vats in the first room of the cave are genuine. But we are not sure if they are from the War of 1812 or the Civil War.

For more information on Cumberland Caverns you might want to read my book "Cumberland Caverns" which was first printed in 1989 (318 pages long)and was just updated and reprinted last month (October, 2005). You can find it at www.caves.org, the homepage for the National Speleological Society.

But, I am glad you liked the cave, itself. It is a monster at 28 miles of mapped passages.

Larry E. Matthews
Professional Geologist

Stavner said...

I saw this in high school. The light show was pretty, but I ignored the religious message completely.

Anonymous said...

You're completely right on with this! I've left this review everywhere I could possibly find on the Internet in order to prevent other unaware people from falling for this. "Our group of 4 came here to experience a natural wonder along with a knowledgeable tour guide to give us objective and educational facts about the caverns, but we were surprised and irritated to be whisked away to a "Christian light show" that, as another reviewer mentioned, was down a dark, dead-end cave tunnel on the other end of several hundred very treacherous steps. The tour guide offered to let people stay behind who did not want to traverse the steps, but we didn't want to miss the "light show" which wasn't revealed as "Christian-based" until we were already all huddled in a dark room with all of the lights shut off behind us and no way to leave even if we wanted to - which we did. We did not pay $60 for admission to a forced Christian brainwashing, and the light show itself was horrendously stupid. Only one person out of about 30 clapped after the "show" during which we weren't even allowed to speak. It was absolutely bizarre. Skip this one for sure."

Sunshine Seen said...

Funny, I ran into this warning a few years too late. In 2008 I unfortunately found myself on this tour. Our guide took his job very seriously and the whole experience was unsettling.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! We went today and the caverns are very interesting ... But then there was the light show...ummmm. As soon as we left I was trying to find out who owns this. The impression given is that it is a national spot. No way.
As a lesbian couple very comfortable every where we go I have to say we were just thinking oh wow get us out of here.
Interesting caves creepy Christian atmosphere check out the caverns in New York. Spectalar, educational, full of lots of different rock and gemstones and nondenominational.

Anonymous said...

Life must be so difficult for all the nonbelievers that get so offended.

It would be interesting to see how they respond to an "offended" God upon their deaths and learning Christians were right all along.